After a chart reportedly showing the rate of employee vaccinations at public school systems across the state went viral in early March, many Frederick County residents were left wondering why Frederick County Public Schools was dead last.
According to the graphic, which was created by the Maryland State Department of Education, only 20 percent of FCPS staff who requested a vaccine had received one. Other school districts such as Carroll, Howard and Montgomery counties were all reporting staff vaccination rates above 50 percent.
But numerous county officials say the chart was incorrect.
“It’s a much higher number … it’s hard for us to know how many people have been fully vaccinated because they’ve gone to places where we don’t have the information,” County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said.
Moreover, according to data collected by both FCPS and the Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA), a majority of FCPS staff have already received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
FCTA surveyed its 3,000 members in early March and found that 72 percent had received their first shot. When a survey was sent out by the school system to all employees on March 15 to gauge how many staff members still needed a vaccine appointment, only 600 employees indicated they were still interested in securing one.
Therefore, the natural conclusion, FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban said, is that a majority of the 7,000 other employees had either scheduled an appointment through other means, already received their first dose or were fully vaccinated.
An issue that seems to be contributing to the low rate of vaccination reported on the MSDE chart is that FCPS cannot legally ask employees if they have received a vaccine or where they received one. But based on the FCTA survey, most employees who are already vaccinated indicated they had to travel outside the county for a shot, which leads to the question of what went wrong within the county to cause so many people to get in their cars and sometimes drive as far as Ocean City?
“What has been so challenging is the lack of available vaccine doses in Frederick County, the inability to have a sense of what was coming so you could put a plan together that you could communicate to staff,” Alban said.
The superintendent said plans to vaccinate FCPS employees en masse within the county fell apart within a week. There was little to no information on how many doses the county would receive each week and on which days the allotment for teachers would arrive. The state previously indicated that at least 100 doses should be allocated to educators each week.
Further, there are approximately 14,000 people in the county who are 75 and older, which makes them priority No. 1 for the vaccine. Alban said she knew from the beginning that there was going be a delay.
“I’m looking at that and I’m thinking that’s going to push us back if you have to do all of them first,” she said.
Frederick County also chose to prioritize all educators in the county, not just FCPS workers. That includes private school employees, higher education employees and day care providers.
“Right from the start, we have been vaccinating all of them. We have not been giving preferential treatment, everybody is being treated the same in the education category,” Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, county health officer, said recently. “In Frederick County, we’ve made sure we’ve been vaccinating all the educators. Other jurisdictions have been vaccinating just the public school system educators.”
But there also seemed to be issues with the system that was stood up. Educators with appointments have been turned away from local county clinics, and some who pre-registered in mid-January have still not been contacted for an appointment.
Alban said link-sharing was a significant issue that led to people being turned away at the door. She said, when people were individually emailed to sign up for an appointment through the county health department, they would share the link or the email with their colleagues.
“It seems to make sense, because if I’m an educator and I’m getting invited, you should be able to, as well, but what was happening was sometimes you might have been invited as an educator or you might have been invited because you were in another priority group,” Alban said.
There was confusion and disappointment that led some educators to stay up late into the night to secure appointments around the state.
The availability of doses has almost never met the demand within Frederick County. Gardner has encouraged those who were eligible to consider getting appointments at mass vaccination sites around the state as they began to open.
“People went to Ocean City, people went down to Six Flags. Is that how we wanted to see this happen? No. [It’s] the reality that we as a county had to confront,” Alban said
Alban and Gardner hope a majority of educators within the county will have received their first dose of the vaccine by April 1, and local leaders are advocating for a mass vaccination site within the county.
For now, though, county officials stress that FCPS is not at the bottom of the statewide list for vaccination rates.
Reporter Steve Bohnel contributed to this report.